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Three-way PKN union drastically changes Dutch denominational landscape

Two groups of merger opponents stay out

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

DOORN/OPHEUSDEN/GARDEREN - The Dutch church buildings still are there but most soon will display different denominational names on signs and plaques. Three church formations concluded decades of talks and negotiations on a new constitution (church order) by signing the formal merger document, in a ceremony in Doorn on the eve of the union date of May 1, 2004. Two groups of opposing churches have not joined. A merger between three partners is unparallelled in Dutch church history. The new Protestant Church of the Netherlands (PKN), formed by the small Evangelische Lutherse Kerk (ELK), the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKNs) and the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk (NHK), has a combined membership of about 2.5 million.

In many places, the merger was remembered in worship services the following day. The PKN sofar has ignored calls to cancel plans for official merger celebrations later in June.

The merger triggered a serious split in the Re-formed Alliance (GB) in the NHK, the orthodox wing which went along despite principal objections. In the months leading up to the merger, more confusion was created when among other initiatives, a GB-aligned synod member attempted to strengthen PKN’s confessional statements. Never officially adopted by synod, the document only will have vality if a local consistory wants to adhere to it. The move however did pull a number of merger opponents into the PKN.


Throughout some regions of the country there are congregations and groups which remained outside the the PKN, casting a pall over what could have been a festive mood. While the leadership of the Reformed Alliance (GB) reluctantly joined the PKN, a part of its constituency which already had aligned itself with the Committee to preserve the NHK stayed out. They were joined by another group aligned with the orthodox Reformed publication Het Gekrookte Riet (The Bruised Reed).

Also on April 30, an emergency synod was convened in Opheusden by NHK’s merger opponents to constitute itself as the Restored NHK (Herstelde NHK). Representatives from seven newly reconstituted classes (regional groups of churches) elected a temporary moderamen which has called the classes together for a synod still in May. The HNHK has adopted as its church order NHK’s 1951 constitution. Sixty-five consistories have joined the HNHK along with the remnants (majorities or minorities) of another seventy consistories. It is unclear still how many people refused to join their congregations in the PKN particularly since they on point of principle also resisted notifying withdrawal from a PKN-bound church. They maintain that the merging congregations left them and that no ‘resignation’ is required.


A conflict in Katwijk aan Zee already resulted in legal action when two large districts which refused to join the PKN were assigned small facilities. The HNKN congregations lost the case and now each must hold four services on Sundays. The case is seen as the harbinger of things to come: numerous court challenges are expected over property and other assets as it will be argued that belonged only to entities belonging to NHK’s legal successor. However, the wording of the 1951 NHK church order has not been challenged before in court. Experts fear that the HNKN will experience the same fate as did the churches who joined the Doleantie in 1886 and before that, the Afscheiding in 1834. They all lost everything.

A number of (often small) congregations belonging to the NHK earlier already had federated with one of more local churches of the GKNs. Others jointly called a minister or had integrated pastoral workload. Particularly in the northern regions of the country and in the larger cities this process made many church buildings redundant. Dozens of centuries-old buildings have been sold to a few non-profit foundations which lease them to third parties for a variety of purposes, including as museums, art galleries, restaurants, and in a few cases, for housing units. The phenomenon also has put numerous monumental pipe organs on the market as well as other church furniture. New estimates suggest that hundreds of church buildings share a similar fate or that they will be demolished, if they do not rate designation as a monument, to make way for new developments. A similar process is underway in the Dutch Roman Catholic Church where bishops are merging parishes to rationalize costs and the use of clergy.


Seven churches previously belonging to the GKNs have regrouped as the continuing - Voortgezette - GKNs at their first synod in Garderen, in early May. The situation of the seven - Garderen, Haarlem-Centre, Den Bommel and the Frisian towns Boornbergum, Frieschepalen, Noordwolde and Har-kema - is entirely different from that of the opponents in the NHK. Since GKNs property rights always were with the local church, they pressed their synod to safeguard them.

The synod relented by granting a ten-year grace period in which former GKNs churches can opt to withdraw from the PKN. The caveat however is that a special commission must guide such an exit which has created doubt with some about the process. There still are other local churches reviewing their options, GKNs consistories must ratify decisions of broader assemblies before they take effect. A couple of churches sent observers to the first VGNK synod. It is not yet clear how many remained outside the PKN.

The VGKN synod indicated it is open to ties with the PKN as well as with the Nederlands Gerefor-meerde Kerken (NGK). The VGKN primarily opposes PKN’s hierarchical structure where the local church is a branch of the denomination, a model the PKN inherited from merger partner NHK. The other obstacle is the pluriformity of the confessions adopted by the PKN, an inheritance from its Lutheran merger partner ELK. This objection they share with the HNHK. The third obstable which particularly has drawn opposition from the HNHK segment are PKN declarations such as the one on same-sex marriages which are viewed as anti-Scriptural.


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in recent decades has dropped numerically below 15,000. Although not unified on the merger, opposition was muted and is not expected to create ongoing problems for the PKN.

The merger process dates from the early 1960s when eighteen GKNs and NHK ministers in a formal letter called for organizational unity of the two church groups. They then had a combined membership of over 3.5 million. There are two mergers in GKN’s history, one in 1869 and one in 1892. In the early 1950s, the small group which seceded from the GKN in 1926 over the creation controversy involving Dr. Geel-kerken merged with the NHK.

Synod HNHK

In a new development, the PKN now demands that the continuing HNHK adopts another name. The PKN in a demand which expired on the date of HNHK’s first synod cited possible confusion over church identity since many Hervormde congegrations will continue to use their old name as well. The synod refused in an unanimous vote.